‘A Generation of the MARTIN kind’: The Tracts of Martin Marprelate (Part Two)

As part of the IJBS Blog Series, Dr Ariel Hessayon (@ArielHessayon), Reader in early modern History at Goldsmiths, University of London, explores the origins and legacies of the comical, controversial and anti-clerical Martin Marprelate pamphlets across the 16th-17th centuries.

Whereas Part One of this blog post examined the religio-political context of the Martin Marprelate tracts, Part Two explores the tracts themselves. The objective of the Martinists was, in a manner of speaking, to push the Church of England further away from Rome (Popery) and closer to Geneva (Calvinism). The middle way – as they saw it – that had been navigated in the form of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, with its reintroduced Book of Common Prayer (1559) and modified Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), did not go far enough. Rather, the tightly knit and well-organised network of ‘Martinists’ responsible for the tracts wanted a separation of secular from ecclesiastical power, that is distinct spheres of influence for the magistracy and ministry. Moreover, they placed great emphasis on the Bible as the word of God, a divine word which had greater authority than traditions and the pronouncements of bishops. Indeed, it was high ranking ecclesiastical officials and academics – ‘petty popes, and petty antichrists’– that the Martinists initially had in their sights. Among them was a dean of Salisbury called John Bridge, who had written an exceptionally lengthy and tedious defence of the Church of England; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Bishops of Winchester and London; and the master of a Cambridge College. This was at a time, it must be stressed, when printed works were strictly censored by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop of London and those delegated by them for that purpose. And while there was no Inquisition in the manner of Catholic Spain, there was still a Court of High Commission for investigating and punishing those found guilty of committing religious offences. Mercifully, this court could not sanction torture to extract confessions nor could it impose the death penalty. It did, however, operate in tandem with the secular Court of Star Chamber, whose officials investigated and heavily fined some of those suspected of being involved in the Marprelate affair.

Frontispiece, An Admonition to the People of England (London, 1589).

Not all the Martinists’ accusations were accurate, or even coherent. Nonetheless, they succeeded in breaking the mould of how religious disputes should be conducted. Indeed, a striking feature of the tracts was that they were written in English rather than Latin so that they could reach as wide an audience as possible; even those unable to read might still hear the words spoken aloud. The prose was colloquial and playful, relying on spontaneity, irony, parody and alliteration: ‘proud, popish, presumptuous, profane, paltry, pestilent and pernicious prelates’ gives a flavour. Most likely the author(s) were influenced by the extemporisation of actors on the Elizabethan stage as well as jest books and ballads. As for the satire, it was comparatively savage. Indeed, it did not follow accepted norms which derived from Roman models. Rather, Marprelate mixed sometimes well-informed anecdotes with sexual insults and subversive rhetoric.

The official response was outrage. Scandalised, the Bishop of Winchester declaimed in An Admonition to the People of England (1589) against these ‘odious libels’ crammed with ‘untruths, slanders, reproaches, railings, revilings, scoffings and other intemperate speeches’ that never before had been seen committed to print. Further propaganda intended to maintain the status quo appeared, including a royal proclamation and a sermon. Yet the most remarkable aspect of the officially sponsored counter-narrative was how the ecclesiastical authorities, with full governmental support, managed to swiftly adopt the Martinists’ innovative polemical strategies and turn those weapons against the very people who had developed them. To accomplish this they hired skilled writers, most likely including the prolific Thomas Nashe (1567–c.1601) and the playwright John Lyly (1554–1606). Altogether more than twenty anti-Martinist works were published with titles like Pappe with a hatchet (1589), An Almond for a Parrot (1589), and Martins Months mind (1589). Even so, in an unanticipated irony, at least one of these anti-Martinist pamphleteers became so infected with the Martinist strain that he began writing some pieces in a Martinist vein.

Frontispiece, An Almond for a Parrat, Or Cutbert Curry-knaves Almes (London, 1589).

In the short term, as we have seen, the Martinists were defeated. Not only that, but their more cautious and moderate puritan brethren – many of whom had been quick to distance themselves from the Martinist project – were damned by association. A further blow was struck in July 1591 with the execution of William Hacket, a self-proclaimed prophet from Northamptonshire. Hacket and his accomplices planned to abolish church government by bishops and depose Queen Elizabeth. Their widely publicised fate, however, served only to bring the puritan movement into further disrepute. But in the long term, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Martin Marprelate re-emerged together with a fictional offspring. In 1637 his spectre was invoked by seditious parishioners in Northamptonshire refusing to pay tithes and ship money. Then, with England on the brink of Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians, a pamphlet entitled Vox Borealis (1641) printed by ‘Margery Mar-Prelat’ appeared. Here the printer directly addressed the reader in verse:

Martin Mar-Prelate was a bonny Lad,

His adventures made the Prelates mad:

Though he be dead, yet he hath left behind

A Generation of the MARTIN kind.

‘The Printer to the Reader’, in Vox Borealis or The Northern Discoverie (London, 1641).

The following year Marprelate’s Hay any work for Cooper was reprinted by ‘Martin the Metropolitan’. Thereafter a number of similar titles were issued, notably a satirical plea for religious toleration by ‘Young Martin Mar-Priest, son to old Martin the Metropolitan’. Many of these works were by the future Leveller leader Richard Overton. Appropriating and refashioning the identity of a famous if pseudonymous Elizabethan antagonist of ecclesiastical authority, Overton’s purpose was to fire shots with paper bullets against persecution and tyranny in the pamphlet wars of the English Revolution. Leaders die. Their followers die. But ideas can and do endure – as do the innovative ways in which they can be expressed and spread.

Frontispiece, The Araignement of Mr Persecution (London, 1645).